Imperial architecture, historic cafes, hip nightlife and some of the best cuisine in Europe… Britta Pichler reveals the best of Vienna, from the formal winter balls to the trendy underground bars.
On the surface Vienna is elegant, traditional and slow moving. However, dig a little deeper and you’ll find that it’s also bohemian, trendy, and a place to party into the small hours. Vienna’s elegance and tradition are centrally located in the Inner City, or more formally, the first district. In its 3km2 of space you’ll find stunning architecture made up of palaces, museums, theatres and churches. Many tourists stay in this small area of Vienna to see the major sights, then head out thinking that’s all there is to the Austrian capital.
Pity, those people missed out on seeing what Vienna is really about. To do that, you have to get out of the Inner City and head over to the districts that surround it. There’s the Naschmarkt (meaning ‘snack market’) that borders the 4th and 5th districts and is where to locals go to dine. There’s the 7th district with its huge shopping street and the bohemian flair of its funky coffeehouses and local designer stores. Even further out, the 19th district, displays a strong wine culture with vineyards growing within the city limits.
After a long day of touring the city, a round of all-night partying awaits in multiple pubs, trendy bars / restaurants, and dance clubs. Vienna is a versatile town that has much more to offer than cakes and cathedrals…
Best of the Beaten Track
The Inner City contains almost all of the “must sees” of Vienna. St. Stephen’s Cathedral is in the middle of the city and the elevator ride to the top offers a nice view. The Hofburg – Imperial Palace has multiple tours, but take the Imperial Apartments Sisi Museum tour due to its refreshing honesty about the famous Austrian Empress. Vienna is the birthplace of the coffeehouse and The Sacher Café is the most prominent with its famous Sachertorte. Pair the sweet torte with a strong cup of Viennese coffee and the sugar and caffeine rush will keep you buzzing for hours. To see all the other sights ride the Vienna Ring Tram which is a good value.
There are two important sights outside of the Inner City. The first is the Schönbrunn Palace. It offers a 30 and 60 minute tour, but go for the shorter one and spend the rest of the time walking the beautiful gardens. A little secret about the palace is that it has the world’s oldest zoo on its premises and is a great treat for families. For hot summer afternoons when touring is done, find the public pool where the chic set of Vienna go to cool off.
The other sight is the Giant Ferris Wheel at the Prater. Lines can be long and to be honest, it isn’t worth the wait. Photo opportunities from the ground looking up at the wheel can be really nice though.
Tip: if you plan on seeing more than two or three of the main sights, then it’s well advised to buy a Vienna 2, 3 or 6 day pass that gives you free entry to the likes of the aforementioned Hofburg and Schönbrunn Palaces, plus the main venues in the Museum Quarter, like the MUMOK and the unmissable Leopold Museum, often with “skip the lines” entry. It will save you a fortune! (You can even hop on and off the tourist buses for free).
Get off the tourist track to start hanging out where the locals are. Right outside of the Inner City is the Naschmarkt. Put up with the crowds and walk at a slow pace to see all the exotic edibles on display. Buy only nibble-sized quantities as prices can be high. To satisfy your hunger go behind the stalls to the diverse restaurants and dine with the Viennese. Some of the places can be a good value like the vegetarian eaterie Tewa, which is stand 672. On Saturdays the Naschmarkt expands to include Europe’s largest flea market. It’s fun to poke through all the dusty knick-knacks but the items are overpriced. (Nb: the Naschmarkt is closed on Sundays and holidays).
From Naschmarkt walk to the bordering bohemian 7th district which is called Neubau. Within a few blocks is Vienna’s biggest shopping street, Mariahilferstraße. The usual suspects like H&M and Zara are present, but the department store Peek & Cloppenburg has a flagship location which offers the best shopping opportunities. If you want something original, check out the young designers on Zollergasse street. Then head east to hit the MuseumsQuartier to grab some culture, coffee, and just hang out.
Experience & Events
Vienna is a great town to explore on foot. The Vienna SightRunning tour is a unique experience if you’re a jogger or just need to burn off the Austrian sausage, beer and tortes.
If the thought of jogging makes you woozy, dance away the night during Ball Season. Vienna hosts over 450 balls each year and is one of the most authentic experiences a tourist can participate in. They are a great way to get into sections of buildings that are normally closed to see dazzling displays of imperial interior design. Despite the formal setting and a very strict dress code (men must be in tuxedos and women must wear floor-length gowns) balls are anything but stuffy. Prepare for a long night of dancing, live music and fun.
Tip: Balls vary in expense and experience. The Emperor’s Ball is expensive and touristy so skip it. The Opera Ball might be the most famous but comes off as tacky due to the media circus around it. The Vienna Philharmonic Ball is the most elegant and despite a high ticket price, is absolutely worth it. Most Viennese tend to flock toward the Flower Ball, Coffeehouse Owners’ Ball, and the Bonbon Ball due to fantastic locations and respectable ticket prices. Most Balls take place in January and February and you can see a calendar of the main events here.
Vienna is also very well known for its atmospheric Christmas markets where hot pretzels and gluhwein are the order of the day: something to bear in mind if you’re looking for a December city break suggestion!
Wombat’s City Hostel is an excellent hostel if you’re on a backpacker budget. Just make sure to book the Naschmarkt location as the other two are around the train station, which isn’t a desirable neighbourhood. For those with a few more euros to sprinkle liberally on their accommodation, nH Hotel on Mariahilferstraße has a fantastic location, great staff and a trendy vibe. At the top end, Hotel Imperial is an exquisite and spacious five star hotel. If you’d rather go down the more independent route, then try searching for apartments instead.
Traditional Austrian cuisine is rich, satisfying fare. Go to Café Central or Bettel Student, both of which are in the Inner City, reasonably priced, and consistently good. Eating at a würstelstand (sausage stand) is a must. The best is in front of the Albertina Museum. Order your sausage with a side of bread and an Austrian Ottakringer beer.
Vienna coffeehouses are an institution. Go in the morning and order a Viennese breakfast. In the afternoon go to Oberlaa for the best cakes in town. If you’re looking for a more formal dining experience, head over to Plachutta and order the house specialty – Tafelspitz.
Nightlife in Vienna isn’t always easy to find even though the party week starts Wednesdays and on weekends goes all night long. Hotel bars are popular, and 25hours has a laid back bar with a DJ, good vibe, and rooftop views (although for the very best vistas check out the bar at Sofitel). To go dancing Volksgarten-Pavillon, with its winter garden, and Albertina Passage are the places to be. On Fridays and Saturdays don’t show up earlier than midnight. For a taste of artsy underground Vienna, try the cultural/nightlife hybrids of Fluc and Brut.
Getting There & Around
Vienna’s airport is small but efficient. Ryanair is a great, cheap carrier that flies to and from Vienna from other European cities. Once you’ve touched down at the airport, your best bet is to catch the CAT (City Airport Train) a direct service that takes just 16 mins to reach the centre of town. You can buy tickets in advance via GetYourGuide. If you’d rather not fly, intercity train travel is offered by the ÖBB but check out Eurolines first for great prices on clean, punctual buses with laptop plugs and sometimes WIFI.
A good website that offers up-to-date information on the latest happenings in Vienna www.wien.info. A local perspective and some fresh ideas can be found at Vienna Insider. Foodies should check out the blog Sushiandstrudel.com.
Lonely Planet Vienna City Guide is as good a guidebook as you’re going to get. For some serious fiction try Joseph Roth’s String of Pearls, is a nostalgic portrait of Vienna in the final days of the Austrian empire (Roth also wrote the acclaimed Radetzky March). Meanwhile Maria Fagyas’ novel, the Devil’s Lieutenant has a deserved cult following.
The Third Man is ranked among the greatest films of all time and takes place in Vienna in 1949. Before Sunrise is one of Richard Linklater’s early films, featuring Ethan Hawke as a perfectly-pitched cliche of an artsy American backpacker (check out that goatee!) who falls in love with Julie Delphy on the overnight train from Budapest, before spending the day with her in Vienna. Amadeus won an Academy Award for best picture.
Soundtrack to the City
Vienna is featured on our list of fabulous romantic weekends in Europe. Check out the article for more amorous suggestions, or head to our City Breaks page for our complete list of city guides to top destinations around the world.